No band, no Sparty, no Zeke: Spartans embracing the difference of 2020
No fans in the stands and no band on the field.
Sparty’s costume will be packed in a room somewhere, and even Zeke the Wonderdog will be sitting this one out.
This is what Michigan State’s players and coaching staff will encounter Saturday when they arrive at Spartan Stadium for a noon kickoff with Rutgers to open the COVID-delayed season. There will be no walk from the Kellogg Center surrounded by thousands of tailgaters, no running out of the tunnel in front of more than 70,000 fans.
The moment some players and even first-year coach Mel Tucker have been waiting for will have a decidedly different feel, to say the least.
“For the fans, unfortunately, they can't be there right now and I know a lot of the guys are bummed that they're not going to be able to run out in front of all Spartan Stadium,” fifth-year senior center Matt Allen said. “But I'm just focused on Rutgers and a lot of the times I really try and block all that stuff out and just focus on the task at hand.
"So, that's what I'm planning on doing and that's what most of my teammates are planning on doing as well.”
Of course, that’s easier said than done.
What the Spartans and Scarlet Knights will encounter on Saturday is unlike any have faced before. Even at the lowest high school level, most players and coaches at least had some fans and a band belting gut the fight song.
Now, outside of immediate family, the teams will have to do their best to create their own emotion, their own momentum.
“We have tremendous energy in our practices,” Tucker said. “We generate our own momentum, and everyone is into it. Everyone's up and ready to go, chinstraps buckled, mouthpieces in on the ready. When their number is called they go in and they give it everything they've got, 100%, every time.”
To better accommodate themselves to the game-day environment, the Spartans have held two scrimmages in Spartan Stadium as well as what Tucker described as a “mock game.” During those games, they’ve also been piping in crowd noise and music to the level the Big Ten is allowing, the same thing that will take place Saturday.
Still, it will be an adjustment.
“Talking to some of my colleagues around the country that have already played games in similar settings, they say that it is different,” Tucker said. “So we've tried to create that atmosphere for our players. It’s just like playing the game in practice. You want the practices to be as close to the game as possible and so we've done that with noise. And it’s going to be very important for us on our sideline to generate and produce our own energy, our own excitement, our own intensity with the group that we have, with our players and coaches on the sideline.”
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That part — having an enthusiastic sideline — won’t be different than any other season. The difference now, of course, is that’s all teams will have.
“That’s definitely going to be big for us,” Allen said. “It basically gets people going, and just like if somebody brings energy then everybody else on the team is going to have a little bit energy.
“So I think if we can bring our own energy that'd be a very, very good thing for us and help us move forward through the season.”
The change in atmosphere might not be all bad, though.
According to senior linebacker Antjuan Simmons, he’s approaching things like any other game, something that’s easier for him to do considering he’s played in 39 games over the past three seasons. But the lack of fans could be a good thing for some of the young players who have yet to experience a game in the raucous environment of a packed Big Ten stadium.
“The only difference is there's just no fans, but I've kind of been able to block out the noise and stuff like that,” said Simmons, who added it will be easier to communicate. “But that's also more so probably because I've been in there. The good thing is that the younger guys kind of won't look like a deer-in-the-headlights when they get out there.
“So, it’s definitely new, but it is definitely gonna bring out the best of us.”
Even without fans, Tucker will do his best to relish the moment he first comes out of the tunnel. His coaching career began at Michigan State as a graduate assistant and now, more than 20 years later, he’s back as the Spartans’ head coach.
And while the seats surrounding him will be mostly empty, that won’t change what the moment means to him.
“Spartan Stadium is special,” Tucker said. “And even though we won't have our fans in the stadium, certainly their passion and their energy and their desire and their pride in this football team and this university, we’ll feel that on Saturday.
"When we step on that field, we're going to feel our fans, we're going to feel that pride, we're going to feel that energy.”